[English version of Travailler avec les Français: témoignages de 22 étrangers de 19 pays]
After a first collection of experience feedback from foreigners who have or have had professional interactions with the French published online at the end of August (see here), here is a second series produced by a second class of the MBA Cybersecurity Management and Information Systems Governance (MACYB) of the Economic Warfare School (EGE) where I have been teaching intercultural risk management for nearly fifteen years.
The students were very involved and conducted more than twenty interviews, each one more exciting than the last (congratulations to them!). They then had to transcribe them, identify recurring topics and draw lessons for cooperation. As with the first class, this unusual exercise had the objective of taking them out of their usual cultural references to collect the experiences of foreigners with the French. With this step aside, the goal is to go beyond stereotypes, to identify trends and frequencies of certain phenomena and to develop international effectiveness.
If you compare this new series to the previous one, you will notice how much the feedback from foreigners echoes each other to present a very similar picture of their relations with the French: the contradiction between freedom of expression and its limitation imposed by hierarchical distance, the theoretical dimension of reasoning style that produces excellent pedagogues but also excessively argumentative people, the mystery of long and not very productive meetings combined with an undeniable professional efficiency, the difficulty in sharing constructive feedback, the key value of politeness, the ability to enjoy life outside of the professional life, a reluctance to recognize the value of « others », especially foreigners.
Each cultural context has strengths and weaknesses for cooperation. If interviews were conducted with foreigners working with Germans or Americans, we would have a different picture, showing other challenges and opportunities. I can only encourage everyone to get into the habit of collecting these valuable feedbacks, which have the double merit of allowing us to go beyond stereotypical imaginations and to give an empirical dimension to the concepts of the intercultural approach.
To facilitate reading, the excerpts are organized into eight sections:
- Hierarchical relationships
- Explain, argue, convince
- Work/life balance
- Interpersonal relationships
- Barriers, challenges, and glass ceilings
NB: First names have been changed and any element allowing to identify the persons or their company has been removed. The comments in italics, the illustrations or videos at the end of each section are mine.
1. Hierarchical relationships
Assane (Senegalese): In the professional setting communication is clear, targeted, the message gets through. But generally, I noticed that the communication is very hierarchical: the big boss never talks to us directly and always goes through the deputy boss who talks to the lower level, etc. If we talk about communication between individuals, we can say that they are a bit too reserved. Overall, at work there is not much exchange, except when there is a little affinity.
Paloma (Brazilian): Regarding the relationship with the hierarchy, there was an impression of closeness with the introduction of tutoiement [informal way to address someone in French] whereas it was a trap for all those who did not have the intelligence to respect the hierarchy. This hypocrisy is all the more exacerbated as they criticize their professional context, including their superior, on a daily basis, without ever complaining or arguing with them.
Jakub (Polish): I perceive the French work culture as a very hierarchical model. I think it is easier in Poland to criticize your superiors, easier to criticize ideas coming from above. I had my own team of French people and I struggled for a long time to get them to question my ideas and to have a critical approach to the concepts that other managers were bringing to the discussion. And it wasn’t because they didn’t have skills. People are very competent and very well educated, but I think they feel like they shouldn’t criticize or challenge something from above. My supervisors often wanted to know what I was doing and who I was meeting with, and to control who I was talking to and who I wasn’t talking to.
Mithil (Indian, works in France and the Netherlands): In France, the hierarchy is very strong. But in the Netherlands, the hierarchy is not very strong. In France, I can’t realize my idea without talking to my manager. So I have to talk to my manager. If he says it’s good, that it’s right, then I can express it. But in the Netherlands, if it’s just a small idea, I’m just free to do it. Also, they like it when you challenge them. I can tell my director that what he said is not right. It’s not frowned upon. But in France, we don’t have as much freedom.
Julian (Canadian): In America, we don’t differentiate between the boss and the subordinate. There is no complex between the supervisor and the non-supervisor. It’s a team effort, which means that if the supervisor has to deal with something he or she doesn’t know, he or she is able to defer to the subordinate to learn. There is no such complex. In the French, when a person is a supervisor, they want to be right, to be the one who knows everything. As a rule, the leader is not able to accept clearly the remarks made by his or her subordinates.
Let’s take the example of seminars or team trainings in companies. The entire staff must participate, including the boss, he is not exempt. During a seminar in Canada, if the boss did not do a certain exercise well, the results of the whole team are made public, including those of the boss, so there is no shame or prohibition to say that the boss made a mistake. If there is a recommendation to be made, the same recommendation that will be made to the subordinate would also apply to the leader. Our philosophy is that if the subordinate is absent from his post, the leader must be able to work in his place.
Lucas (Belgian): When discussing or exchanging in a meeting to make a decision, the French sometimes need a manager’s approval, and sometimes decisions are made quickly due to seniority level.
Elena (Romanian): When a top management person arrives, he or she is accompanied by a more senior manager who introduces them to the team. We are prepared, informed when it happens. From the first day, I observed their great politeness, all the time. They seem friendly at first, sympathetic, gallant, but at the same time they are a bit distant. You can feel a distance imposed by the hierarchical position, of course; but the French also impose this distance by their good manners, very visible, I would say. They never show that they are hostile or upset, they have this distant benevolence.
Heather (American): When a French tells you: « this situation is not ideal, we’re asking for your recommendations », in reality they don’t really take them into account. There is a sharing problem. Because of the strong hierarchy, certain things should not happen at certain levels. In France, we prioritize access to information, even when it doesn’t have to be. For example, certain business decisions require knowledge of several factors in order to react. But, since information doesn’t circulate well upstream, you don’t necessarily explain why decisions are made. And that’s a real French problem.
Moussa (Senegalese): Generally, managers, if an idea doesn’t come from them, they are quite reluctant to accept it, they don’t see the potential of the idea you bring. It’s as if they don’t even try to understand.
Jakub (Polish): It seems that education in France is very good for technical skills, maybe for working in small groups, but there is not a good education for managing people and teams. Managers want the team to reflect their idea, which is a major pitfall in thinking. It’s not only in France, but in France, I’ve seen very often that people want their ideas to be realized by the team, not the team’s ideas to be accepted.
Ahouéfa (Beninese): French-style management is very hierarchical. I see it in the company where I work. We have N+7s and that doesn’t exist in other countries, such a strong and deep-rooted hierarchy. And as a result, we tend to fear the N+4 to the point that sometimes when he comes, we have to get up, clean the offices, etc. I would say that this is a model of the old monarchy, and I would say that it is perhaps normal with the history of France.
Liam (Canadian): The hierarchical organization chart has a central value in French style management, the CEO or the director is addressed as “vous” [formal way of addressing someone in French], the subordinate managerial relationship is very strong in France compared to other countries in the world where you could address all your colleagues as “tu” [informal way of addressing someone in French], including the CEO.
Heather (American): In the Netherlands, no one is surprised to see a project manager send an email directly to the CEO with his manager as a copy to share information. I’ll let you imagine this kind of situation in France. It could be perceived as a short-circuiting of the hierarchy. The Dutch don’t have a problem with knowledge coming from a lower hierarchical level without it coming from their boss. It is just that the information transmitted must be adapted and relevant to the recipient.
Ahouéfa (Beninese): For me, the French are very professional of course, but they are also very attached to personality, proximity and affinity. I have noticed that the person must be very bright for a woman, a little less for a man, but also that the person must be kind, submissive and close to management. I wouldn’t say bootlicking, we shouldn’t exaggerate either, but the person has to be in the bosses’ good books. I have seen that French managers keep in mind the person they see a lot in meetings, who talks a lot, the one who shouts the loudest, not necessarily the most competent though.
Carla (Italian): The teams are happy and dare to argue, the leaders are listening. You can see that the French are a flourishing people who have a real freedom of expression. In Italy, you are immediately afraid of being fired if you contradict the bosses, those who progress are those who have a lot of pull, the important thing is to keep your place. We Italians should really take inspiration from them and make this freedom of expression our own.
As in the first series of interviews, I put this subject at the top of the foreign partners’ concerns because it conditions a large part of professional relations, first and foremost communication between people of different status. However, the intensity of the hierarchical distance remains an element of surprise for many foreigners who consider the French context as synonymous with freedom.
However, it should be noted that everyone perceives the French context according to their professional habits in their country of origin. For example, the feedback from the Indian who also had experience in the Netherlands, where people of different status are used to working with a high degree of egalitarianism, accentuates his perception of the hierarchical distance in France. For her part, the Italian perceives the French context as much more open and free than in Italy, which is in line with the World Economic Forum’s 2018 ranking on the willingness to delegate authority at work: out of 140 countries, Italy is ranked 104th, France 36th and the Netherlands 5th (source here, pdf).
I quickly made a map with the ranking of some European countries:
Maryam (Moroccan): I find that the French don’t take the time to debrief. It’s not automatic. Most of the time, it was more like a checklist. They don’t go into detail about what happened.
Klaus (German): Regarding feedback, I often had to ask the French: « So, how do you think it went? Are you satisfied with the result? » If something went wrong, it was the same thing, unfortunately. I felt like it had to come from the outside, it didn’t really come from themselves. With my French colleagues, I rarely felt like they needed to say « let’s talk about it. » There was more of an « OK the damage is done » or a « it’s over » and nothing more.
Carla (Italian): There is little feedback, I think. In my country it’s almost an obligation, and I personally try to give negative feedback as well as positive. I have the impression that in France there is less of this culture, or else they do it in a more restricted way, in small teams among themselves.
Jakub (Polish): In France, I find that it is less frequent to receive constructive feedback about the situation that occurred and recommendations for improvement. In Poland, it is more common that when there is a problem, I get feedback on what needs to be improved in my communication, in my behavior or on the technical level. In France, people will tell you that you did something wrong, but they won’t always tell you what you need to improve.
Paloma (Brazilian): If the French were an animal, they would be a duck because they make a lot of noise and have an elusive temperament! They grumble a lot, they criticize France, its internal politics, they grumble about everything and especially about their professional sphere. They will criticize human relations, working conditions without ever questioning themselves or realizing how lucky they are to work with so many rights.
The ability to give constructive feedback remains a black mark on the professional relationship with the French, and, one might add, among the French themselves. We certainly do not have a monopoly on this, but we can wonder about the Franco-French reasons for such difficulty in expressing, listening to and taking into account constructive feedback. We should certainly go back upstream to the educational system, which does not encourage a culture of constructive feedback, a positive relationship to error and failure, a less personal approach to knowledge and ignorance.
It is as if a large part of the construction of the personal identity of the French was first and foremost the result of a definitive mastery of knowledge, and not of a lifelong learning process. In 2010, I posted an article on 5 disturbing peculiarities of French management, where one could read about the very low ranking of France to the question, In general, does your manager or supervisor give you feedback on your work? [Oui stands for Yes]
Klaus (German): The meetings were usually more like briefings because it wasn’t really about listening to others; it was more like « I’m telling you news, and I’m not really interested in hearing anything back. » Decisions couldn’t be made in a meeting. They had to be made informally afterwards. It was never clear how information was communicated. It wasn’t that transparent. The decision was never really related to the meeting that had taken place before on that topic.
Ahouéfa (Beninese): At first, I was shocked by the number of meetings, but finally I understood that it was also a way to meet, to talk to each other and to be able to simply discuss. They are also very long, because we will take the time, I would say lose the time, to get into the subjects. There is this side where we will first talk a lot, re-explain the context, the outlines, and all this are things that should be done before arriving at the meeting.
Veera (Finnish): I also worked on French projects as a collaborator. In terms of deadlines, it was fine, but the meetings we had were too long. The French discuss a lot and in the end things are not decided. You have to have a lot of meetings to get things decided. These long meetings were not effective. It takes a long time to make a decision. In Finland, we like short meetings (15 minutes) where we make decisions.
Julian (Canadian): We, in terms of communication, we go straight to the point, we don’t waste time. For example, we don’t read much. So, if you give me a report that represents a sheet of paper, you can be sure that we won’t read the whole sheet. Even worse if the report is on several sheets! In the two or three sheets, the Frenchman will want to define the purpose of the meeting, to explain the details of the opinions of each other. We just need the purpose of the meeting, the broad outlines. We like to keep things short, simple and to the point.
Assane (Senegalese): In a meeting, you can easily stray from the agenda. Above all, everything depends on the person leading the meeting. If he or she gets carried away or loses control, things quickly go in all directions. You need a bit of authority in meetings because everyone wants to defend their ideas and someone has to referee and say stop. For me, this is very characteristic of meetings with the French.
Shaun (British): If the Germans tend to create robust stuff that works well, the French tend to have a strong taste in aesthetics, in beauty. At meetings, you’re going to have to be well dressed because dress is very important to the French. They have a pronounced taste for the visual aspect (aesthetic), whereas the English, when you work with him, if he knows that you will do your job well, and that you bring him money, the rest he does not care.
Maryam (Moroccan): Another thing, I don’t know how to say it in one word: the French love meetings! It doesn’t matter the situation, the employer. Really, I don’t know why. I don’t know why they like to say things again.
Heather (American): Many attend meetings without preparing for them, as mere spectators. That’s why so few people speak up. The problem in France is that there is training on how to handle a meeting, which is good, but the problem is this tendency to overcomplicate simple topics.
Assane (Senegalese): I have also often noticed that the participants do not prepare the meetings. Many times they discover the subject in the room. Often it is during the meeting that we collect information that should have been prepared beforehand. And finally, it is at the next meeting that the subject is really discussed. So instead of one meeting for one subject, we have two or three because we take the time to re-explain the agenda and discuss it when it should have been done beforehand. Often, others find out about it right away and since they don’t agree, we end up wasting time and reschedule a meeting to discuss the substance.
Liam (Canadian): You get a lot of pushback if you question their point of view without some diplomacy. When faced with contradiction, the French prefer to find the solution immediately, even if it means stretching out the meeting, and they don’t like to lose face.
According to a 2018 IFOP survey of a sample of 1,001 people representative of the executive population (here, pdf), French executives spend more time in meetings than they do on vacation, 27 days a year. More seriously, 78% of French executives say that their opinion is rarely, if ever, taken into account by their management when making important decisions.
Ahouéfa (Beninese): The very hierarchical aspect weighs on the way we communicate, on top-down communication. The information goes through several filters before reaching us and this creates suspicion and sometimes we feel less concerned. Sometimes this has a negative impact on the overall involvement.
James (Canadian): Canadians in general are open to sharing information, to collaboration. I have found that some French people tend to keep information to themselves. The Canadians are happy when asked for information and readily share what they know when asked.
Veera (Finnish): With the small team I had, the communication was very direct. We debated, gave our opinions. But with the other experiences, the communication was very indirect, a very political language was used, especially by the top management.
Themba (South African, lives and works in Canada): The French ask a lot of questions during the meeting and sometimes they like to debate about specific topics. It is worth noting that there is a lot of non-verbal behavior that could clearly be interpreted in a positive or negative way. This behavior often leads to reactions that made me feel not included. I was aware of this feeling every time the French raised their eyebrows without saying anything.
Maryam (Moroccan): The French are direct. They don’t beat around the bush. They are talkative, most French people talk a lot. Sometimes, they talk about everything and nothing and we diverge from the main subject.
Carlos (Colombian): The communication was direct with the French. They were straight to the point. The French were very open in their exchanges. We found a synergy very quickly in the conversation.
Liam (Canadian): Are the French sufficiently receptive to the proposals of a third party to advance a project? It depends on the person in front of us and the relationship we have with that person. Generally you have to prove beforehand that your opinion counts with a French person. The most difficult thing is to take the plunge, that is to say to try for the first time.
Aleksandra (Georgian): In France, there are things that go more slowly than in Georgia. There is also a little more form in the work: e-mails are a little more formalized, more structured. After each meeting, you have to make a summary or a report so that everything is clear. Writing, writing, writing! We need a lot more writing.
If we had to summarize the challenges faced by foreigners communicating with the French, we would say that they are confronted with a surprising culture of debate in a hierarchical context where form counts as much as content. For the French, this is not surprising: they are used to long discussions, to adjusting their communication style according to the hierarchical position of their interlocutors, to choosing the right words and expressions, both oral and written, according to the situation, the person, the status, the degree of knowledge.
For foreigners coming from more direct communication contexts, such as Canada or Finland, this is a major obstacle to cooperation. During intercultural training, I have to insist on the need to take into account the importance of politeness which determines the form of the message in France, for example the more frequent use of the conditional when making a suggestion or asking for something.
5. Explaining, arguing, convincing
Michel (Lebanese): Immediately, I noticed that there was a lot of talk, sometimes not for much. We have to listen to them and that was a surprise for me. When the Frenchman wants to reach his goal, his objectives, he wants to impose himself. Of course, this is not a mentality specific to the French. It is rather when they are sure of themselves that they try to impose their line. In general, I appreciated that everyone gave their opinion, free with their ideas. I even noticed the positive side of this freedom; the men in the field sometimes manage to change their boss’s mind. So it’s not a strictly vertical relationship.
Aleksandra (Georgian): In France, if a person says: « I don’t agree », he will say I don’t know how many sentences after. In Georgia, we say yes or no, and sometimes it can be too brutal. But we don’t use as many sentences as in France to express ourselves. With the French, there is a lot of politics in everything. When you want to talk about something, you have to think before who knows how many times!
Ahouéfa (Beninese): Globally, questioning the thesis of French colleagues, their point of view, can be complicated, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it, but when you do it you have to be prepared for a potential conflict, I would say a strong opposition. Indeed, generally people have a rather precise and clear-cut opinion on subjects and you come with the aim of telling them that they are wrong and immediately you have to justify yourself, it’s not only, ah yes you’re right, it’s also going to be: why do you say that? What are you basing it on? I think there’s a lot of ego involved, and not just the intellectual aspect. Anyway, I’ve noticed that with the French you have to be ready for long discussions if you want your word to count.
Julian (Canadian): The French beat around the bush when there is something to explain. I have the impression that they don’t get to the point. And on the American side, that bothers us. We are not there to listen to rhetoric, we are there to know exactly what happened to draw conclusions. For example, if we ask the French what color a boat is, they will first explain the origin of the boat, the context, before finally saying that the boat is blue. But we would directly say that the boat is blue.
Carla (Italian): I noticed the ease with which the French take on the topics and their pedagogy. Their argumentation is detailed but clear. They go from the global to the detailed and adapt to the level of the interlocutor. For example, with me they kept a macro and strategic level, but they went into much more technical details with the engineers of my team.
Moussa (Cameroonian): The French is quite pedagogical, who likes to feel that he is being gradually led towards something, but in a clear way. In writing, there are French people who like the text, they like to see that there are well constructed turns of phrase, with a sustained vocabulary, and all the rules of politeness that go well.
Greg (British): The Englishman finds the Frenchman to be a good talker. But he talks a lot, he doesn’t get to the point. He goes from left to right in a meeting, he first leads you on before concluding. In fact, he is good at demonstrating, he takes the time to do a lot of demonstrations, which is not perceived well by the Englishman because he has the impression that he does not go straight to the point.
Lucas (Belgian): They need time to think before making a decision. Before acting, they need to develop their thinking. They need to think, they need information, so they need time. It is important to talk with them to know the priorities. If they need time and delay, it is not a problem because they are transparent and flexible.
James (Canadian): During a meeting, some French people say « that’s not the way to do it » when they give a contrary opinion, or they don’t agree with you or with what you say. They say it right away, it can be seen on their face too. It is frowned upon in Canada to tell someone curtly that you don’t agree with them. We avoid attacking the other person head on. Everyone has a point of view, and all points of view are equal. Afterwards, of course, we manage to find a consensus.
Assane (Senegalese): The discussions are very often animated, there are debates of ideas. The ideas that emerge are very well argued, whether for or against. Also, I have noticed that they are very defensive right away when you get into a debate. I have an anecdote here: when I arrived at a client’s site to develop a small application for a project, I went through the code and made suggestions to the developer on how to code. I suggested to him to proceed differently, I tried to convince him, to explain him by A + B, but it had no effect. And above all, the discussion went in all directions. So, I left him alone and proceeded in my own way. Some time later, he came back to me to say that he had looked at my code, found that the best way to proceed was mine. Finally, he made it his own. I concluded that there was a probable lack of humility and a complex problem.
French-style communication cannot be understood without our culture of debate. And this culture of debate is one of the consequences of our reasoning style. This includes the dialectic of thesis and antithesis that the French learn at high school during philosophy class, in other words, contradiction. We like to pit our brains against each other by adopting different points of view, sometimes even by playing devil’s advocate, i.e. by presenting a point of view that is not our own, with the sole aim of reaching a realistic or innovative position.
The French then tend to unfold their written or spoken discourse in funnel mode: starting from the global to the detailed. And they think that this process is universal. Wrong! It can be perceived as a waste of time, aggressive, or arrogant, by foreigners who are uncomfortable with the idea of debating and destabilized by ideas that certainly come up, but which are sometimes not planned in the meeting agenda. On the other hand, the French can take the time to explain their ideas clearly and pedagogically and, whatever the culture of their interlocutors, speak as equals, from reason to reason, from intelligence to intelligence.
6. Work/life balance
Klaus (German): In general, the French people I’ve met have a bit of a « I love my vacation » culture. They go away and become unreachable. There has to be a really high work priority for their vacation plans to be cancelled. That’s what I’ve perceived. It’s more of a lesson to be learned. They have this attitude of, « My time off is my time off, I insist and I get a lunch break, so, I’m taking my lunch break. » Work can be done, but it has to be organized differently. And that’s something that can inspire and frustrate at the same time if you’re not in the same boat.
Themba (South African, lives and works in Canada): I found it inconceivable that the French would be so rigorous about their lunch breaks. They all take breaks and adhere to them without fail as if missing them would be frowned upon or a concern. In North America, the notion of « time is money » means that every minute counts to make an extra dollar, but the French can kindly tell the customer, « it’s my lunch break », and the customer has to come after. But I learned and quickly understood that the French are very sociable and like to take their break at the right time to connect with their colleagues who sometimes are already waiting to join them. In Canada, you can leave work early (4:00 to 5:00 pm) if you didn’t manage to take your lunch break.
Jakub (Polish): The things I like in general is that in France, especially the older generation or people with a bit more experience, their private life is more important than work. Of course, work is important, but their private life, private business, vacation and their disconnection are very valuable. When people go on vacation, they don’t think about work, they completely disconnect, they enjoy it. And when they’re with family, they’re with family, they’re not at work. And I really like that. I really liked that model, which also translates, in a way, into the fact that the lunch break is quite long in France.
Maryam (Moroccan): Also, I find that in France in relation to education and extracurricular activities, they all have things to do in parallel to the work on a daily basis. They have a real life on the side. The French give everything its time. That’s what I’m learning from the French: to do something other than work.
Aleksandra (Georgian): In Georgia the work/life balance is not respected at all. It’s like, even on the weekend you get an e-mail, a message. If it’s urgent, you answer it. And you get a call, especially if you’re working with foreigners, you’re available all the time. And especially if you are in business. If you’re in business, you send e-mails even at 11 o’clock at night, or even later at night. And that’s almost normal. You can be on vacation and you receive e-mails, you answer immediately, even if you are on vacation. And your boss, he thinks it’s normal too, and everyone else thinks it’s normal.
Moussa (Cameroonian): The Frenchman is not available after working hours, as soon as he shuts down his PC, for him his work is over. You call him once, he will complain. If he still deals with the subject you are asking him about, he will be sure to point out that he has had to do so with several people or on several occasions.
Carlos (Colombian): The French manage the balance between social and professional lives better because they are more organized and aware of how many hours they must work and how much time off. This has an impact on daily life. I have learned this from experience. In Colombia, the lack of discipline and organization leads to a constant overflow of time; work life encroaches on personal life.
Ahouéfa (Beninese): The importance of holidays and vacations, break times and lunch, these are really precious things for the French. They give everything of themselves when they are present, they do their best; and when they are on vacation they do their best too!
First, foreigners are often annoyed by the ritual of lunch breaks or absences due to vacations, which force them to follow the rhythm of the French, who show little or no flexibility on these subjects. Secondly, the ability of the French to « cut back » and « disconnect » is admired and even envied.
7. Interpersonal relationships
Maryam (Moroccan): I find that here in France, compared to Morocco, there is much more organization. There is no one who interferes with the work of others. There is no judgment either. Also, if there is a conflict at work, it will not impact the personal relationship. Unlike in Morocco, where it becomes personal. In France, I have always been able to give my opinion openly.
Elena (Romanian): What I like is this politeness that the French have all the time, but it comes from their education, from their way of life, I suppose. You have to be polite all the time, even over a drink. I like this politeness that I felt in the native French. I have learned to keep a polite distance in all circumstances because it is better that way.
Veera (Finnish): You have to be polite, don’t ask for too much, let it go. You can make an enemy the first day if you show that you are his or her equal because he or she thinks he or sho is superior. It is important to observe who is who, because you can easily make enemies and they make your professional life difficult.
Aleksandra (Georgian): At work what surprised me, there is something, which is how to say, an important point about the salary for example. In Georgia, almost everyone knows the salaries of others. It’s quite an open subject to talk about. I get so much, the other guy gets so much, and bonuses… It can be part of a conversation over coffee. There’s no mystery about it. But in France, it’s a rather taboo subject, I think. Because you never ask your colleague how much he gets, how much bonus he got. In Georgia, on the contrary, we show them. It’s good to show it, there are no constraints to show income, salaries or to buy nice cars or houses.
Julian (Canadian): The Frenchman doesn’t give himself away right away, he hides things at first. It’s after a while that you’ll understand exactly what he wants. If he needs something, he won’t tell you right away, he’ll beat around the bush first.
Elena (Romanian): Romanians, when we see each other, we ask « What city are you from? Where did you go to school? How are your parents doing? » With the French, these questions come later, once they see that they can trust us, that we join the circle of accepted people. Then there is a warm, comfortable closeness. I like that at some point, if they know that the collaboration will be long, they show their curiosity about traditions, places to visit. When a Frenchman comes to Romania for three days, we talk about work all day long, during the lunch break, or in the evening. But they start asking « What can we visit here? What historical remains do you have? What museums are there to visit? What are your traditions? » They could stay neutral, indifferent, but they don’t, and I like that.
According to the writer Jean Cocteau, the French are bad-tempered Italians. Wouldn’t they rather be friendly Germans? Or simply French people? In other words, individuals who are very task-oriented and at the same time very much in need of strong interpersonal bonds, provided that these are built very gradually.
What is the priority then? The task or the interpersonal link? Both! So, at the same time? Yes… but… just as it is very disturbing as the chicken-and-egg problem, it is also a positive surprise for strangers who, after an initial period of polite distance, discover the strength of interpersonal bonds. Unfortunately, this was not the case for the actress Natalie Portman who did not know how to adjust to the French context during her expatriation in France:
8. Barriers, challenges and glass ceilings
Liam (Canadian): France has a selective, social class culture, consideration is issued generally for a colleague who has experience in large groups or who has graduated from schools that are well known; professional experience, expertise are not considered at their fair value.
Heather (American): In France, it’s when you want to change your career track or job, you’re often told that you have to do training because you don’t know anything about it. So, yes, training on more technical subjects can be useful and relevant, but the idea of taking advantage of an opportunity to make people evolve, to make them pivot in their career, is very complicated. You could compare it to the glue effect: your job or department sticks to you so much, you can’t imagine yourself anywhere else. They don’t want to admit that there is a connection, even though there often is. The fear of the failure of the transfer of skills is stronger than this opportunity to evolve and potentially add value to another department. The risk of a lack of competence will always be put forward. On-the-job training and experience are not taken into consideration.
Maryam (Moroccan): In Morocco, there have never been more men than women in the sector where I work which is rather technical (automotive sector). And women are much more numerous than men in the market, we dominate and therefore there is no difference. The salaries are the same and you have to negotiate whether you are a man or a woman. On the other hand, in France, I know that they make a difference in salary. When you are a woman, the salary range is not the same. When I was looking for a job, the French HR clearly told me that the range I asked for was more for men. Apart from the salary, there is also a difference in terms of the behavior and the mission that women are offered. For example, during an interview, the recruiter clearly told me: I’m going to give you a less difficult mission because you are a woman.
James (Canadian): The French can put their degree forward. It’s true that diplomas count, but here in Canada, it’s not something to brag about. Here, what is important is what you are able to do and to show that you know your job well. Putting your diplomas forward is interpreted here as pride, a desire to put others down.
Elena (Romanian): The French consider that if the information comes from France it is more important than if the same information comes from Romania, even if in the end it is the same information.
Assane (Senegalese): At first when you arrive, they look at you a bit with suspicion, they try to put you in a situation. To be respected, you have to prove yourself and earn your place at all levels. When I arrived, they gave me complex things, they left me alone on the subject without much assistance. When I delivered, it was shown to the management, and when I was given new tasks, the project manager said in front of everyone that I could be trusted and that the work would be done well and quickly. That’s how I understood that it had been a test of my skills. As a non-French member of the team, I felt that I had to make more effort, that I had to prove myself twice to win, which I had felt even during my recruitment.
Greg (British): It’s the fact they complain all the time that I don’t like. The Frenchman wouldn’t just say something was good. He would say: it was good, but did you see the little thing? He always expresses himself with reservations or it’s always with negative remarks. The Englishman is the opposite: even if there are negative aspects, he will tell you that it was good. In fact, if he sees that it could hurt, he will drop it.
Liberty, equality, fraternity? When the beautiful French motto meets reality, it loses some of its shine. Each cultural context has its strong and weak points in this matter. Here again, some will be found more often in France than elsewhere and for reasons specifically linked to the French social and historical background.
There is a picture that I have kept since I saw it in 2014 (I can’t find the source, sorry for the copyright but I will include it if it is pointed out to me) and which sums up a multitude of specifically French issues. It is an exchange (staged for communication purposes) between President Hollande and his Prime Minister, Manuel Valls. One can see in it a desire for proximity and equality between the two men sitting at a very modest table but in a prestigious setting. Can humility be achieved in a palace that materializes the hierarchical distance? And is displaying humility proof of humility? Here is a knot of contradictions that can also be found in companies.
Quelques suggestions de lecture:
- Working with the French: Indians share their experiences
- Working with the French: 17 foreigners from 12 countries share their experiences
- Cross-cultural Turbulence at Air France-KLM: employees share their experiences
- The surprise effect, or the enemy of cross-cultural communication
- Intercultural meetings: 10 good practices to reduce misunderstandings
- The French and the demon of theory: 3 stories